In a jungle in Eames’ subconscious, Arthur turns at the sound of a twig snapping. He turns with his gun drawn, muscles taut and ready for a fight. He’s not ready to see a tiger; massive, lithe, striped orange and black in great big fuck-off stripes, paw frozen in the act of stepping towards him, green eyes fixed on Arthur’s.
This is Arthur’s first time working with Eames, and he only agreed to it because of Mal’s recommendation of the forger. If Arthur gets any say in the matter, it’ll be his last time working with Eames as well, even if the man is brilliant. Fucking subconscious tigers are just one of many things that Arthur doesn’t need to deal with.
The tiger sets his paw down and stares at Arthur. Just stares. Which is good, because all Arthur is able to do is stare back. He’s not scared of much, certainly not pain, and not even death – not in a dream, anyway. But being mauled? Yes, that apparently still has the capacity to terrify him.
The tiger cocks his head, and says, “Hmm. Interesting.” His voice is low, comfortable, entirely self-satisfied, and slightly colored by an unplaceable accent.
Arthur blinks. Because, you know, it’s a talking tiger. Arthur is as inured to weird shit as he is to dream-pain, but talking cats are a new one for him.
A gunshot tears through the silence, close and sudden. Arthur instinctively turns towards the sound and the shouts that follow.
When he turns back, the tiger is gone. Which is worrisome in itself, but Arthur can only deal with one catastrophe at a time, so he flicks the safety off his gun and charges down the path to meet Dom and Eames.
This is how it goes: after a job is finished, everyone splits up, and then they meet in a bar in another city, maybe another country. They have a round of drinks, or a few rounds, and they talk about the job.
Arthur’s background is military, and he craves debriefing sessions like he craves Camel cigarettes and cheap Kentucky bourbon sometimes, with a stubborn yearning from a previous life.
“Your problem, Arthur, is that you have no imagination," Eames tells him.
There are, obviously, downsides to having these meetings in bars. Like dealing with Eames when he's drunk. Arthur puts up with it only because Eames is, to Arthur’s chagrin, unquestionably brilliant at what he does. (And maybe a little because Eames is also unquestionably and distractingly attractive, the bastard.)
"You have to get by on being ruthlessly competent instead. It’s terrible.” Eames says. He’s slurring, just the tiniest bit, the only clue that he’s drunk four gin martinis.
“I wasn’t aware that being competent was terrible,” Arthur says, trying in vain to catch the bartender’s eye. He really needs to be drunker to put up with this shit.
“I never said it was,” Eames replies, ignoring the fact that he did, in fact, just say that. “You don’t have enough imagination though. That’s a problem.”
“Is that what you think of me?” Arthur says. Four drinks, and Eames starts dissecting Arthur’s psyche, usually with annoying accuracy. Five drinks, and he starts getting handsy. Arthur wouldn’t mind it so much if Eames ever showed more than a passing interest in Arthur when they’re sober. Eames doesn’t, so Arthur hates it.
“Sometimes, yeah,” Eames says, sucking the olive off his toothpick. “I know your type. Brilliant, earnest, brutal when you need to be. Working twice as hard to make up for lacking that spark of creativity. But on the whole, unimaginative.”
Thinking of the way that Eames can slide into one persona after another, how he creates dreamscapes that are somehow ludicrous and evocative at the same time, Arthur says, “I think you have the opposite problem, then.”
“Too much imagination.”
Eames throws his head back and laughs. For a second, Arthur is caught up in the exuberance of the movement, the way Eames’ shoulders shake and how his lips slide over his teeth in a feral grin.
“You’re not the first person to say that,” Eames says, before draining the last of his drink. “Probably won’t be the last either.”
“Never again, Dom, seriously,” Arthur says – shouts, rather, over the roar of the old truck’s engine. Riding in the beds of open trucks in the driving Peruvian rain isn’t his preferred method of travel, but it’ll do in a pinch, which they’re definitely in. Which leads back to the subject of his rant. “I am never working with Weiss again. Do you fucking hear me?”
“Jesus, would you calm down?” Dom says.
“No,” Arthur shouts. “You’re fucking crazy. Eames is crazy. And Weiss is fucking insane. Working with the three of you is having to deal with compounded craziness. Compounded with fucking interest.”
“I don’t know why you’re complaining–”
“You mean besides the fact that we have to run out of town with our tails between our legs, or that I’ve got mud in places where mud has no business being?”
“Well how about this then? I was thrown into a vat of hydrochloric acid. Try that on for fucking size, Dom. Fucking Weiss, who the hell puts a vat of acid in their fucking dream?”
“It’s not like Eames didn’t shoot you as soon as he could.”
“Hydrochloric acid, you bastard.”
“Hydro. Chloric. Fucking. Acid.”
“Could be worse,” Dom says blithely, the asshole. “Weiss got mauled by a tiger.”
“Oh boo fucking hoo – wait.” Arthur doesn’t give a fuck about Weiss on principal, but he’s suddenly remembering the first time he worked with Eames. “A tiger?”
“A tiger,” Dom says. “He abandoned Eames with those projections, the mob with the torches and sticks–”
“Jesus,” Arthur says. Arthur can be a callous dick sometimes, and Eames has a way of driving people batshit, but it takes a special kind of asshole to throw someone to the fucking wolves like that.
“I know," Dom agrees. "Anyway, boom, a tiger comes out of nowhere and pounces on him.”
Arthur’s quiet for a moment, thinking about the tiger that apparently lurks in Eames’ subconscious. “Did he say anything?” he asks Dom.
Dom shoots him a look. “Weiss? No, but I think he might have pissed himself.”
“Good,” Arthur says. He decides not to clarify that he actually meant the tiger.
“Security’s going to run you down hard,” Eames says, lying down on the hotel room’s carpet. Arthur is stiff-backed, jaw clenched, the nearest he’s been to panic since he was a green twenty year old kid trying to gun his way out of a room of hostile projections. He hates this; hates the chaos, hates having to scramble and improvise, even if he is good at it. He really hates that if he fails – if a projection gets one lucky shot off at him and kills him – they can all end up in fucking Limbo.
“And I will lead them on a merry chase,” he replies, hurriedly pulling out the IV lines of the PASIV.
Eames’ laugh catches him off guard. Arthur looks back at him. Eames is grinning like an idiot, like a kid who’s just been given his golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. And he’s looking at Arthur like...
Like Arthur just performed a magic trick for him. Like Eames is seeing something that wasn’t there before.
“Just be back before the kick,” Eames says, with that ridiculous grin still in place.
Arthur shoots him a smile that shows none of the internal chaos that’s warring in his gut. “Go to sleep, Mr. Eames,” he says instead. Eames is still smiling when Arthur turns on the PASIV.
Arthur, Ariadne, and Yusuf are celebrating the end of the job early, while they’re still stuck in Fischer’s subconscious. Eames is off babysitting Fischer in his Peter Browning persona, and Dom and Saito are probably brain-dead and stuck in fucking Limbo. Otherwise, though, everything’s peachy.
They’re all very fucking drunk.
“Are there tigers in the Alps?” Ariadne asks. She’s hugging a half-empty bottle of twelve-year-old Pinot Noir to her chest. Arthur’s pretty sure that Yusuf’s trying to impress her with the fancy wine that’s been stocked in their hideout.
“Tigers live in jungles,” Yusuf points out. “There are no jungles in the Alps.”
“No,” Ariadne agrees. “What about leopards?”
“Leopards also live in jungles,” Yusuf says.
“Leopards live in African forests and the Savannah, and snow leopards live in the Himalayas,” Arthur corrects, because the drunker he gets, the more of a know-it-all prick he usually becomes. “Did you see something?”
“Yeah,” she says dreamily, sipping from the bottle of wine. “I think I did, anyway. It was big. And orange. And cat-like. I saw it when we were hiking down to the hospital.”
“You think it was a tiger?” Arthur says.
“Couldn’t have been,” Yusuf says, then falls off the couch. Undeterred, he speaks from his spot the floor: “Tigers live in jungles. That much I know is true.”
“You are so drunk,” Ariadne tells him. “Your tolerance is terrible.”
Yusuf shrugs, shifting around on the carpet. “It’s only a dream, it doesn’t count.”
“Can we go back to the tiger?” Arthur says, because even though it’s been over four years since he saw that tiger in Eames’ subconscious, he still remembers the way that it looked at him.
“What tiger?” Ariadne asks.
“The one in the mountains?” Arthur prompts. “That you saw?”
“But tigers live in jungles,” Ariadne says plaintively.
Arthur is tempted to slam his head into the table. He elects to take a long drink from his bourbon instead. (Not for nothing has he learned impulse control.) He swallows, then asks, “What was it then? If it wasn’t a tiger.”
Ariadne shrugs. “I dunno. But I liked him. He smiled at me.”
Arthur feels something churn in his gut when Eames steps up next to him at the LAX taxi stand.
“Where are you going?” Eames says casually.
“The Westin,” Arthur replies, matching his tone. “You?”
Eames smiles. “The same. How about that?”
“What are the chances,” Arthur says dryly, wondering what Eames would have said if Arthur had told him he was staying at the Figueroa. Or the Marriot. Or in a van by the beach.
“Share a cab?” Eames offers, in a voice that doesn’t quite achieve casualness.
It’s on the tip of Arthur’s tongue to decline. Then he thinks of Eames’ smile in that dreamed-up hotel room, how unguarded he’d looked as he slept; thinks of four years of verbal clashes and drunk flirting; thinks of Eames’ laugh, and his shoulders, and hands, and mouth. He thinks of all that, and then he makes a choice.
“Sure,” Arthur says. “Let’s go.”
Eames kisses like he talks, with the full force of whatever he’s trying to communicate – in this case, Arthur interprets, why haven’t we done this before now, and, you need to be wearing less clothing. His hands are restless, twitching towards Arthur’s thighs even while they’re still in the cab, roaming across his skin and clutching at him once they finally get into Arthur’s suite. Eames slips two fingers between Arthur’s lips while sucking him off, dragging them against his tongue; Arthur tastes cigarettes and salt as he comes, moaning, in Eames’ mouth.
When Arthur wakes a few hours later to the feeling of an empty bed, he feels a moment of crushing disappointment. Then he realizes he hears music. He rolls out of bed, fumbling for his underwear, and emerges blearily from the bedroom.
Eames is wearing a pair of loose track pants that ride low on his hips, and nothing else. He’s sitting at the counter in the kitchenette, hunched over a piece of paper, with a collection of pencils in front of him. His iPhone is playing The Clash from its tinny little speakers, and his feet are tapping along to the music. Arthur blinks a few times, watching him; it’s the first time he’s ever seen Eames like this: half-dressed, unguarded, and wholly at ease.
Arthur feels something move and twitch in his chest, like his heart is stumbling over its normally-steady rhythm, like his ribs are shifting and expanding. He thinks, in his half-awake daze, that he’s come to something of a crossroads. He can either turn around and go back to bed, keep this memory like a photograph hidden in a book; or he can stay here, say something, create something out of this moment.
“Hey,” he says softly.
Eames turns; there’s something in his eyes, a flash of emotion as he takes in the sight of Arthur standing in the doorway in his boxers. It’s there and then gone, replaced by Eames’ familiar smirk.
“I woke up to piss and couldn’t fall back asleep,” he says. “Bloody jetlag.”
“You should have woken me,” Arthur says through a yawn. He stretches out his arms and back, muscles loose and languid from sex and sleep.
Eames shrugs, but the corner of his mouth is still turned up.
Arthur makes his way slowly over to the kitchen counter, leaning next to Eames, brushing their shoulders together. He looks down at the paper spread out in front of them, and is... floored, he guesses, is the best word for it. Eames has sketched out a landscape, stark and evocative, that looks like a cross between the Grand Canyon and the moon, inhabited by figures that are somehow beautiful and monstrous at the same time.
“Wow,” Arthur says, moving the paper closer. “This is...”
“Weird, I know,” Eames says, setting his pencil down.
“Not what I was going to say, but I guess it works,” Arthur says, still examining the paper.
“Do you remember,” Eames says after a moment, “that night in the bar, after the job in Prague?”
“Three years ago?" Arthur asks, looking up. "Yeah. You were doing that thing that you do when you’re drunk–”
“Trying to get into your pants?” Eames says, running his hand over Arthur’s bare thigh.
“Being a way-too-perceptive ass, actually,” Arthur corrects him, nudging his arm. He stands and goes to get a drink from the mini bar. He pulls out some Jack Daniels – he’s been craving bourbon again – and sits on the stool across from Eames. “You told me I had no imagination, and I told you you had too much.”
Eames smirks again, adding some shading to a cliff face on the Martian/desert/moon landscape. “That’s probably the truest thing anyone could say about me.”
“Yeah?” Arthur says, sipping on the bourbon.
“Oh yes. When I was first training for dreamsharing, I got the award for most creative killer projections.”
“Zombies?” Arthur asks. He’s run across that once or twice before.
“Tyrannosaurs,” Eames says proudly. “In fighter jets.”
Arthur chokes on his whiskey. “Shut up,” he says, “Seriously?”
Arthur really wants to ridicule him, but there’s a small part of him – the perpetual seven-year-old that lives in his brain– that is crowing about how awesomely cool that is. “Why are you telling me this?” Arthur asks, trying to shut that inner voice up.
Eames is still looking at his drawing. He cocks his head to the side and says, without looking up, “Because it exemplifies pretty much everything people tend to hate about me. I know you have little tolerance for the absurd, Arthur, so if you need a reason to walk away from this tomorrow morning–”
“That can be it. You like things that are sane and orderly, and I’m neither. No harm, no foul.”
Arthur looks at him, still diligently shading that fucking drawing, and wonders how the fuck this happened. A minute ago he was relaxed and content, and now he wants to tear Eames’ limbs off and beat him with them. This isn’t anything new, but it’s disappointing as hell, given the context. Arthur knocks back the rest of his drink and says, “You fucking coward.”
That gets Eames’ attention. “Excuse me?” he asks.
“You heard me,” Arthur says, then pushes back the stool and stands. “Don’t talk to me about my tolerance for absurd shit, I’ve been working with Dominic fucking Cobb for the last six years. If you want this to end now, the door’s right there. I don’t need your magnanimous bullshit excuse, because I wasn’t planning on walking away from shit.”
Of course, then he does walk away, because otherwise, Eames might see that his hands are shaking. Arthur goes to the bathroom, because it seems like the safest place for a tantrum, and slams the door behind him. For years, almost four fucking years, he’s been doing this ”Are we or aren’t we?” dance with Eames. One of them finally mans up and makes a move and then...
He could hit something. Instead, he turns on the shower tap, and sits down on the toilet. He’s waiting for the sound of the door slamming, for a sign that Eames has casually walked out of his life again.
Instead, there’s a hesitant knock at the door. Arthur flinches, then steels his face back into its default glare.
“What? he snarls.
Eames opens the door, but doesn’t come in. He stands in the doorway, one hand on the frame. “I thought I was the one who was supposed to be good at seeing through people,” he says contritely. “I’m not used to being the transparent one.”
“What, afraid you’re losing your edge?” Arthur sneers.
“Just afraid, actually.”
Arthur blinks. Eames is always so full of shit, a smarmy con man who deals in lies and deception. He always has an angle. Except, of course, when he doesn’t, and it’s moments like this that completely throw Arthur for a loop.
“That was, what, a bluff back there?” Arthur asks quietly.
Eames shrugs. The air is starting to billow out steam between them. “It was supposed to sound like a ‘Get out of jail free’ card, but... yes.”
Arthur stands, crosses his arms. “Asshole.”
“I put the ‘ass’ in passive-aggressive, it’s true.” Eames takes a step inside, closer to Arthur. “Are you sure you want to follow through with this?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Eames’ eyes sweep over over him. “That you are. I checked my totem and everything.”
“Decision’s yours then,” Arthur says, letting a casual tone belie the churning in his gut, the crazy rhythm of his heart.
Eames takes another step into the bathroom, his chest and mouth only inches from Arthur’s, and shuts the door behind him.
Arthur refuses to call it a relationship. Frankly, he hates that term. It makes him think of being a responsible drone of an adult. A normal person.
He is not a normal person. Eames is not a normal person. Normal people have functional relationships; abnormal people like he and Eames are incapable of them. (His own history has provided plenty of evidence to support this.)
Ergo, he and Eames must have something else, because their whatever-it-is works. The two of them can wake up next to each other, argue over whose turn it is to make the coffee, insult each others’ breakfast choices (Arthur prefers poached eggs on toast, Eames eats either disgustingly sweet cereal or some truly elaborate omelettes), say disparaging things about whatever morning news program is on, and then go on with the rest of their day. It’s good; better than Arthur ever assumed a not-a-relationship could be.
It’s a funny process, becoming familiar with this entirely different side of Eames. Arthur investigated Eames’ history – what he could find of it – long ago, and they've worked together, on and off, for years. But for all of his research and familiarity, Arthur could never have imagined, for example, Eames’ personal library: books on astrophysics and marine biology, archaeology and art, photography from around the world, along with dozens of sci-fi paperbacks and detective pulps. He guesses it’s the same for Eames when he discovers Arthur’s collection of graphic novels, or that Arthur does, in fact, own and occasionally wear worn-out pairs of jeans.
It feels like every day he discovers some new level to Eames' personality. Today, he's discovered that Eames gets weirdly conversational at odd times; for example, while being pursued by a team of armed hitmen.
"Do you suppose we're doomed to fulfill the expectations placed on us as children?" Eames asks as they sprint through a car garage in Queens, looking for a decent getaway car to steal.
"What?" Arthur says. He's still pissed that these guys couldn't have waited until after his and Eames' brunch date to try and kill them. No fucking courtesy with some people.
"Ooh, a Lincoln," Eames says, skidding to a stop. "Shall I break in or you?"
"You," Arthur says. Eames is much better than him at stealing parked cars. Arthur generally finds it easier to just do a car jacking, but they're in a tougher part of Queens, and he'd take his chances with a hitman over a vengeful mother with a .45 in her glovebox. "And what the hell were you saying?"
"I said, do you think we're doomed to fulfill other people's assumptions of us from when we're children? Hang on," he says, then pauses to break the window. The car alarm goes off, and Eames has to speak up to be heard over it. "For example, almost everyone I knew just assumed I would become a criminal by the time I was in high school. It wasn't particularly good for my self-esteem, which in turn made me less interested in keeping on the straight-and-narrow."
"So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy? You're just conforming to everyone's expectations of your character?"
"Exceeding them, I should hope," Eames says, cutting a wire with his knife. The alarm cuts out, leaving the garage silent.
"For the record, I appreciate your criminal skills," Arthur says.
“Thank you, darling. Just out of curiosity, what were you like as a kid?” Eames asks, as he goes to work on hot-wiring the engine.
“Quiet,” Arthur says, looking around the garage. He sees a movement on the other end of the floor, aims, and fires off a shot at it. “I lived in my head a lot. You?”
“I did too,” Eames replies, as the engine roars to life. He clambers over to sit in the passenger seat. “Only I was never quiet about it.”
“Yeah?” Arthur slips into the driver's seat and throws the car into reverse. In the rearview mirror, he spots two men in cheap pinstripe suits running towards them. "Behind us."
“Oh yes," Eames says, swiveling in his seat. "Didn’t make me too popular. I was definitely the mad kid in school.” He aims and fires, and both men drop to the ground.
It’s strange, being able to find things out about a person by the simple process of asking them questions, rather than from painstaking research and endless snooping. It’s a nice change, a chance to learn all the things that hacking into their credit statements wouldn’t show.
As he peels out of the garage and onto the street, Arthur asks, “What did you want to be when you grew up?”
“A dinosaur,” Eames replies, with no hesitation at all. He's checking behind them, to see if they're being pursued.
“A dinosaur?” Arthur asks. He switches lanes, slipping the Lincoln neatly between a taxi and a charter bus, and guns the engine as they get onto the Long Island Expressway.
“Adulthood didn’t really seem that appealing,” Eames replies. “It definitely didn’t have the obvious benefits of being a velociraptor.”
Arthur laughs. “You were kind of fixated on dinosaurs, weren’t you?”
“You have no idea,” Eames says, grinning. “What about you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Arthur says. “I wanted to be James Bond.”
Eames throws his head back and laughs.
“Bollocks,” Eames says, looking at his phone. They’re in Eames’ London apartment, holed up against the disgustingly damp winter weather.
“What?” Arthur says.
“My mother’s in London for the day from Leeds and insists on seeing me.”
Arthur looks up from his book. “Okay. Is this good or bad?” What he really means, of course, is should I stay with you or make myself scarce?
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“For the record," Arthur says slowly, "I’d like to meet your mom.”
Eames leans against the granite kitchen counter, picks at the remains of their late lunch. “She’d probably love you. You’re polite, well-dressed, and fabulously charming. All things I never excelled at.”
“Please. You could charm the crown off the Queen’s head,” Arthur says, closing the book and tossing it onto the coffee table.
“Yes, but this is my mother. She’s wise to all my tricks.”
Arthur leans back into the couch. “What’s your mom like, anyway? I always imagined her as a slightly eccentric English aristocrat.”
Eames barks out laughter. “You’re way off. She’s an office drone. She’s worked as an administrator at Leeds University for the past twenty years.”
“No diamonds or corgis?” Arthur asks, affecting disappointment. “No family crest or decrepit country estate?”
Eames shook his head. “No corgis, though I think she has a cat now. No crest I ever heard of, and she lives in a cottage outside Leeds.”
“Wow,” Arthur says. “I feel like I don’t even know you anymore.”
He’s joking, but then Eames drops a serious bomb on him. “She’s also a Yank.”
It takes a second to process. “She what?”
“This is why I’m not sure you should meet her,” Eames says, mostly to himself. “Meeting one’s mum takes all the mystery away from a person.”
“Wait. Wait a second. Your dad–”
“Was also American,” Eames sighs.
“Oh my god. So you–”
“Lived in Ohio for the first eight years of my life. My deepest, darkest secret.”
“I... I feel faint,” Arthur says, holding his hand melodramatically to his forehead. “I think I might swoon.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Eames says, throwing a bread crust at Arthur’s head.
“You do realize I’m never going to stop giving you shit about this, right?” Arthur says, grinning because first, this is the best possible mocking material he could have dreamed of, and second, Eames apparently trusts him enough to volunteer the information – despite the obvious consequences.
“That’s it, you’re fucking off to a hotel for the night,” Eames says, yanking him off the couch.
Arthur manages to convince Eames – through a mixture of unabashed pleading and promises of sexual favors – to let him stay, and together they clean the apartment.
“What about your dad?” Arthur asks at one point. They’re in the process of making up the guest bed (in case Eames’ mother decides to stay the night, or as a cover for his and Eames’ not-a-relationship, he doesn’t ask).
“Died,” Eames says shortly. “Bike accident when I was eight.” After a moment, he adds, "Hit and run."
Arthur watches him stuff a pillow into a pillowcase and tries to think of what to say. “Sorry,” he settles on.
Apparently, it’s the right thing to say, because Eames keeps talking. “We didn’t really have anyone else, so that’s why we moved to England. My aunt lived in Leeds, and she had some connections to the university. Got my mother a work visa and a job there.”
Arthur’s curious – he’s always been curious about Eames, even when he considered the man little more than a crazy pain in the ass – so he pushes his luck and asks, “What was he like, your dad?”
Eames tosses the freshly-cased pillow on the bed and thinks for a second. “He considered getting up at six in the morning, going for a run in the snow, and then eating a meal of plain oatmeal to be living large.”
Arthur suppresses a smile. “Nothing like you then.”
“Nothing at all,” Eames agrees. “Except that he also did things like, when I asked him where babies came from, he told me that I’d been a blue-light special at K-Mart.”
Arthur snorts. “That’s nothing. My older sister told me our parents got me at a flea market. My dad backed her up.”
Eames’ mother is tall, stick-thin brunette who looks nothing at all like her son.
“Mum, this is Arthur,” Eames says, with almost no inflection in the words.
“I see,” Mrs. Eames says, with plenty of it. It’s jarring to hear a flat American accent from someone related to Eames. “Well, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise,” Arthur says smoothly.
She shakes Arthur’s hand in both of her own, and he sees her raise an eyebrow at Eames. Suddenly, he can see the resemblance.
“Finally?” Arthur whispers to Eames, while his mother is taking her coat off.
Fuck off, Eames mouths silently.
“Language!” Mrs. Eames calls, and Eames grimaces.
Over a dinner of baked ziti – that Arthur cooks, much to Mrs. Eames’ amusement – she asks her son a number of probing questions, most of which Eames dodges.
“How’s work these days?” she asks, finishing off her glass of wine.
“Probably something you’d still rather stay ignorant of,” Eames answers.
Mrs. Eames snorts. “At least you’re not telling me you work for the MI6 anymore.”
“MI6?” Arthur asks.
“You would not believe the things he used to tell me,” she says to Arthur. “Something different every week. ‘I work for MI6, Mom, I joined the SAS, I’m an art thief, I’m a spy, on and on and on. Now he just tells me–”
“That it’s best for her to have plausible deniability,” Eames says.
Arthur’s having trouble keeping a straight face.
Eames mother rolls her eyes. “It’s a real comfort, you can imagine.” She leans forward, brushes Eames’ bangs off his forehead, and asks: “You would tell me if you were a gigolo, wouldn’t you, honey?”
“Ugh, Mom, stop it,” he says, batting her away.
Arthur’s still reeling from hearing an American phrase from Eames’ English mouth when Mrs. Eames says, “Because if you are, can you recommend a good escort agency up in Leeds? Your mother’s got needs after all–”
Eames puts his hands over his ears and bellows the lyrics to “Rocky Raccoon". “OH ROCKY RACCOON, STEPPED INTO HIS ROOM, ONLY TO FIND GIDEON’S BIBLE.”
“IT’S NOT SO EASY TO GET ANY ACTION THESE DAYS–” she shouts over him.
“GIDEON STEPPED OUT, LEAVING NO DOUBT–”
“WHAT WITH THE MENOPAUSE AND EVERYTHING,” Mrs. Eames crows gleefully.
“God, must you be so mortifying?” Eames says. He glares at Arthur, who is in tears with laughter. “No wonder I became such a dysfunctional adult.”
“I have earned the right to embarrass you, buster,” she replies. “It is my hard-won reward for not selling you to slave traders or something by the time you were an adolescent.” She points her fork at Arthur. “You have no idea how tempting it was sometimes.”
Arthur grins at her. “I think I can imagine.”
“Do you know who Hobbes is?” Ariadne asks him one day. They’re working on a job in Paris, trying to perform another impossible inception. It’s like a half-assed reunion from the Fischer job, even without Dom, with the three of them together and Yusuf consulting via Skype.
Arthur replies, without looking up from his notebook. “He was a seventeenth century English philosopher.”
Ariadne raises her eyebrows at him in surprise.
“Came up in Jeopardy last week,” Arthur says. “He thought that all people were more or less selfish pricks.”
“I’m sure that’s exactly how Alex Trebek phrased it.”
Arthur smirks a little, then looks up at her. “Why do you ask?”
Ariadne hesitates, then sits down next to him. “When the three of us were under the other day, I found... a box.”
“A cardboard box. And it said...” Ariadne laughs suddenly. “It said ‘super-secret box of secrets, everyone but Hobbes keep out.’”
Arthur snorts. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. Written in those markers that smelled like fruit and stuff. The handwriting looked like it belonged to a kid.”
“Not mine,” Arthur says. “My secrets aren’t in labeled boxes.”
“Must have been Eames, then,” Ariadne says softly. Eames is on the other side of the city right now, tailing their mark. “So why would he allow a seventeenth century philosopher into his super-secret box of secrets?”
“He’s Eames,” Arthur points out. “Who knows why he does anything?”
One of the things that Arthur loves and hates about dreamsharing is that there’s never a limit on the hilariously surreal shit that happens during the course of a job.
Like, your not-really-a-boyfriend forging himself as a seven year old kid. It’s part of the job – the mark’s an expecting father, Eames will be forging his future son, they’ll be playing on his fears and new-found sense of responsibility, etcetera. It should be a hundred times easier than the Fischer job (the mark's definitely not militarized, for one thing, Arthur's made fucking sure of it), but in the meantime, it’s kind of a mindfuck.
“This is so weird,” Arthur says.
“This is so hilarious,” Ariadne says. “Eames, you’re adorable.”
“Watch it, lady,” Eames’ forged kid-self waves an unlikely ray gun in her direction. “Call me adorable again and I’ll fry you.”
“Not just adorable. Precious,” Ariadne says with relish.
Eames make a retching noise, while Arthur tries not snort coffee out his nose. It is true, of course; Eames-as-a-kid is cute, with spiky blonde hair and a snub nose. It’s not exactly a forgery, either. Arthur’s seen the pictures, thanks to Eames’ mother. As far as Arthur can tell, Eames is forging himself, minus twenty-five years.
“What do you think, Arthur?” Ariadne asks him. “Is Eames cute or what?”
Eames looks defiantly up at Arthur. There’s a smudge of red marker on his jaw, and dirt underneath his fingernails. There’s the barest suggestion of freckles spattered across his nose.
“I might go so far as to say... darling,” Arthur says gleefully.
As soon as the word is out of his mouth, there’s a dreamed-up water balloon flying, at high velocity, at his face. He supposes he should be happy he didn’t get gutshot from the ray gun.
That doesn’t stop him from dreaming up a Super Soaker and blasting Eames in the face with it.
“No trouble accessing your inner child, huh?” he says to Eames later, in their hotel room. They’re both in the bathroom, Eames shaving and Arthur stripping and reassembling their guns, keeping him company. It’s one of those weirdly comfortable domestic things that have started happening between them, without any prompting on either his or Eames’ part.
“Are you accusing me of having Peter Pan syndrome?” Eames asks.
“You were the one who wanted to be a dinosaur when you grew up,” he says, examining the .38 magazine that he's just cleaned.
Eames snorts. “True. You should probably just be happy I’m not wearing green tights and trying to fly through the air.”
“I don’t know,” Arthur says, popping the magazine back into place and grabbing the gun oil. “You do have nice legs.”
Eames pauses, razor hovering above his face. “If I’m Peter Pan, would that make you Tinkerbell?”
Arthur glares up at him.
“You’re right,” Eames says. “You’re really more of a Wendy.”
“Just because this isn’t loaded, Eames,” Arthur says, waving the gun, “doesn’t mean I can’t kill you.”
Eames smirks at him in the mirror, wiping the rest of the shaving foam off. “Oh, I know it. As if you’d ever let me forget.”
Arthur stands, uses his thumb to wipe away a smudge of foam behind Eames’ ear. “It’s not all bad, being an adult.”
Eames turns into his arm, kisses Arthur softly on the mouth. He smells like soap – like Arthur’s soap, in fact, which he regularly steals.
“I guess it’s got its perks,” he mutters against Arthur’s lips.
Arthur’s on the second level of the dream, keeping watch beside Eames’ and the mark’s prone bodies when he senses a presence.
“Oh shit,” he says, when he sees the amber eyes, the feline body slinking towards him.
“Don’t worry about it,” the tiger says, sitting down next to him. “I prefer tuna sandwiches to humans, honestly.”
“Oh.” What the hell is he supposed to say to that? “Who are you, anyway?”
“An old friend,” the tiger says. He stretches, muscles moving liquidly beneath the fur, and nods at Eames. “His oldest friend, actually.”
“You seem pretty self-aware for a projection,” Arthur says. The only other persistent projection he’s had dealings with was Mal, who always struck him as being knocked together from Dom’s guilt and neuroses, rather than based on the actual person.
“I’m not exactly a projection,” the tiger says.
“You’re not?” Arthur asks.
“Nope,” it replies.
Arthur waits, but no further explanation seems to be forthcoming. A thought occurs to him, and he asks, “Are you Hobbes?”
The tiger smiles; it’s somehow charming instead of terrifying, despite the teeth and twitching tail. “At your service,” he purrs.
This is so weird. “I’m Arthur.”
Hobbes puts his paw out. It takes Arthur a second before he realizes that he’s expected to shake it.
Shaking a talking tiger’s paw is definitely one of the more surreal things he’s done in a dream. At least Hobbes keeps his claws sheathed.
“So that was you that I saw, in the jungle, that first job with Eames,” Arthur says, just to be sure.
“That was me,” Hobbes says, stretching out next to him. “I was just checking things out.”
“Looking out for him?” Arthur says, thinking of Weiss.
“Sure,” is the casual answer. “Hey, has he ever mentioned Susie to you?”
“Susie Derkins. She was our neighbor when we still lived in Ohio.” Hobbes sighs nostalgically. “First love, you know?”
“Um, no, he hasn’t mentioned her.” Arthur’s definitely going to look her up when he wakes up, though.
“Hmm,” Hobbes says, with a hint of a purr. “You remind me of her.”
“Really? How so?” Arthur asks.
“You’re smarter and more practical than he is, dark-haired, and I hear you have a mean right hook.”
Arthur laughs. “So I’m just the latest in a long line of vicious, smartass brunettes,” he says.
Hobbes laughs as well, curling his lips up to reveal a set of terrifying canines. “Yes and no. Most of them didn’t get to meet me.”
Arthur crosses his arms, leans against the window sill. “All right. So what are you, exactly?”
Hobbes stands, and considers Arthur for a long moment. Long enough for Arthur to remember that he’s talking to a mammal that could, if he wanted to, disembowel him. “I’m Hobbes,” he says finally. “I’m a tiger. And I’m his best friend. That’s really all there is to it.”
Arthur doesn’t really know what to say to that, but he remembers vividly how Eames tried to warn him off after their first night together, after the Fischer job. I know you have little enough tolerance for the absurd, Arthur...
He wants to believe that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into, but that’s at least half a lie. He still wonders, though, who Eames was trying to protect.
“What about you?” Hobbes asks, interrupting his reverie. His amber eyes are looking earnestly into Arthur’s.
“Me?” Arthur asks.
“What are you, exactly?" Hobbes demands. "It’s only fair that you answer the same question.”
Arthur thinks for a second; in the moment, his most vivid thought is of how much he and Eames laugh together. He was never as serious as Eames sometimes made him out to be, but he's found himself laughing more in the last five months he's been with Eames than he has... ever, maybe. Arthur's not particularly 'in touch' with his emotions or whatever, but he knows that he and Eames have something remarkable together (even if they both still refuse to call it a relationship).
“I’m Arthur," he says eventually. "I’m one of the vicious brunettes that Eames apparently has had a thing for since he was a kid. And I...” Arthur swallows all his reservations and doubts, and pushes the words out. “I’m in love with him.”
Hobbes holds his eyes for long moment. “Good enough,” he says.
He and Arthur both turn at a sound in the hallway, a muffled shout, breaking glass. The projections are getting violent.
“You should go,” Arthur says.
“All right. See you around,” Hobbes says, making his way out of the room.
The tiger turns.
“Should I tell him I saw you?”
He shrugs – Arthur’s not sure how a tiger is able to shrug, but Hobbes certainly can – and says, “Might as well. Otherwise he’ll find out from me, and that’ll just be awkward.”
Hobbes slips silently out of the room. Arthur allows himself a moment to wonder how this has become his life, negotiating a relationship around someone else’s imaginary friend. Then he decides that he doesn’t mind that much. It’s not like it’s the first time, and Hobbes hasn’t tried to kill him, unlike Dom’s projection of Mal. Arthur screws the suppressor onto his gun and slips out into the hallway.
This is how it goes, after they finish a job: everyone splits up, and they meet again in a bar in another city, maybe another country. They have a few drinks, debrief, talk and flirt and relax. But first, he and Eames find each other.
“Good god, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Eames says, his hands tugging at the buttons of Arthur’s jacket.
“What the hell took you so long?” Arthur asks, words slipping out between messy kisses.
“I was stuck at Gare du Nord for six hours, waiting for my train. Bloody transportation strikes. You all right?”
“Fine,” Arthur says impatiently pulling at the hem of Eames’ shirt. “Everything went fine.”
Eames takes the hint and shuts up, lets Arthur pull off their clothes without interfering. They tumble into the hotel’s narrow bed, a mess of limbs that tangle themselves together.
Arthur inhales the scent of Eames’ neck – the bergamot and cedar top notes of his cologne, the traces of cigarettes, sweat, coffee that cling to his skin– and thinks to himself, dizzy and lightheaded, I’m in love with you, you crazy bastard. He doesn’t say it aloud, can’t bring himself to just yet, but it feels amazing to admit it, to form the words inside his head and hear them echo.
Eames’ hands are on Arthur’s hips, his ass, moving restlessly the way that they always do, down his thighs and up his back. “Come on,” Eames is saying, and now his hands are urging Arthur onto his stomach. “I want–”
“Yeah, okay,” Arthur says, and rolls over, moans into the pillow as Eames does filthy, amazing things to him with his tongue and hands and cock. And just when Arthur’s at the point of begging, Eames turns Arthur on his side, lifts his knee, and pushes inside him.
It’s intense, more so than usual, and it’s not just because of the leftover adrenaline, or the worry over Eames’ tardiness in getting to Toulon. It's not just the victory of performing the impossible for the second time. Arthur thinks again, when they’re stretched out along the length of each other’s bodies, Eames’ cock buried deep inside him, I’m fucking in love with you, oh shit, and feels simultaneously ecstatic and utterly terrified.
“Arthur,” Eames says, burying his face in Arthur’s shoulder. “Fucking hell, Arthur–”
And they don’t usually fuck like this right after a job, not since the Fischer job anyway, their first fuck, five months ago. There’s something more here, something happening under the surface of both their skins.
Arthur grabs Eames’ hair, cranes his neck backward for a kiss, feels Eames tense and shudder and stutter out some tremulous noise against Arthur’s mouth. Arthur thrusts back against him, feeling Eames pulse inside him. He jerks himself off, still straining to kiss Eames, and comes in a long, shivering surge while Eames is still inside him.
It’s suddenly quiet in the room, save for Eames’ harsh breath in his ear and the thudding beat of his own heart.
“God, Arthur.” Eames whispers his name against his skin like a benediction.
They’re both quiet while they clean up, shower, get ready to meet Ariadne at the Havana Café. It’s like they’ve gone backwards in time, somehow; like they’ve only been together a few days and are still trying to figure out whether or not this is actually a dream.
“Are you all right?” Arthur asks in the taxi. Eames is staring out the window, watching the streets of Toulon slide by.
“What? Yeah, I’m all right.”
“Okay,” Arthur says, even though something is evidently on Eames’ mind. He wonders whether this is one of those times where he’s supposed to back off or press for more information.
Luckily, he doesn’t have to do either. Eames suddenly turns to him and asks, “Is there a word for simultaneously being content with adulthood, and yearning for your youth?”
Arthur blinks. “Uh. Nostalgia?”
Eames cocks his head. “That would imply I was happy when I was a kid, though. And there was a good chunk of time when I wasn’t.”
Arthur touches Eames’ knee, very lightly. “Yeah?”
Eames looks back out the window. “After my dad died, yeah. It was bloody awful.”
Arthur remembers, with a familiar ache in his gut, hearing the news of his own father’s death, five years ago. He can't imagine a child dealing with that, and then being forced to move to another country on top of it. “Yeah,” he says.
Eames looks back over at him, squeezes Arthur’s hand. “Sorry, darling. Didn’t mean to go maudlin on you. It was just weird, pretending to be some other man’s kid, even as a con. Bit of a mindfuck, the whole thing.”
“I can imagine.” And then, without planning to, he blurts out, “I met an old friend of yours.”
Eames freezes. It’s remarkable, how much he looks like a deer caught in a truck’s high beams. “Did you,” he says eventually. “When was that?”
“In the dream. While you were on the second level with the mark.”
Eames looks down at his feet. “Ah. Hobbes came and said hello?”
“Yeah. We had a chat. He said I reminded him of someone named Susie–”
“–Derkins,” Eames interrupts. “Wow. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s kind of uncanny.”
There’s a moment of awkward silence.
“You know,” Eames said. “I thought you’d be a bit more freaked out by this.”
Arthur shrugs. He kind of wonders about the mechanics of it, but like so much with lucid dreaming technology, it’s not really worth trying to think about it logically. Better to just roll with it, accept it and move on.
“How many times have I said this?” he tells Eames. “I worked with Dom for six years. Weird shit is just status quo at this point. As long as Hobbes doesn’t maul me like he did Weiss, I’m fine.”
Eames is staring at him.
“And just so we’re clear,” he adds, “I think Weiss had it coming.”
Eames is still staring at him, so Arthur leans over and kisses him, just to get that stupid look off his face.
“Come on,” he says, because the taxi has pulled up to the bar, and he can see Ariadne waiting for them inside. “We’ve arrived.”